'What Plot Is Grander or More Essential Than Time Passing?'

Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, looks to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse as an example of how to speed up and slow down fiction narratives effectively.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

In her essay for this series, Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, explores the way novels—and writers themselves—manage time. Narrative time in fiction, she reminds us, is fully elastic, capable of any pace between light speed and snail’s crawl, and the author must learn to manage its fluid rhythm and pace. She pits the ravishing, radical middle section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which reels off 10 years in 20 pages and is itself a meditation on time’s tempo and force, against another form of literary “time management”—the fact that writers face long, slow hours at the desk while their lives flash quickly by. For Shipstead, literature requires enormous patience, and she explains how she’s learned to love the way novels grow slowly. 

Time plays a lead role in Astonish Me, too, which begins in Studio 54-era New York but makes unexpected leaps forward and backwards in time. Joan, an elite-level ballet dancer just good enough for supporting roles in the corps, is pregnant—and her body’s imminent changes will soon make dancing impossible, with no chance of return. As her colleagues tape bruised feet and starve on coke and scrutinize one another’s flesh, and we think the book’s tension will be in Joan’s hiding of her pregnancy—but the second chapter flashes forward, the baby already born, and time keeps marching. As Joan’s son himself becomes a dance prodigy and wants to study with his mom’s old flame, the book explores collisions of talent and fidelity, passion and security, family and career.

Maggie Shipstead, a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, is also author of Seating Arrangements, which won two major prizes in 2012: the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction, and the Dylan Thomas Prize for the best book in English by a writer under 30. Her work has appeared in Tin House, VQR, and The Best American Short Stories.


From Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse:

Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.

If there are such things as universal truths about how we experience life, “time passes” is one of them. (I’d suggest its harsher relative “everybody dies” as another.) Time is the medium in which we live, the thing that separates each heartbeat from the last, the axis against which the distance between birth and death is measured. Time is also a necessary conductor for literature. Reading, the basic act of moving eyes over words and allowing sense to penetrate the mind, takes time, even if during the best and most transcendent reading experiences the forward tick of time ceases to register.

Or perhaps, reading, we don’t so much forget about time as give ourselves over to an alternative, artificial version of it, one manipulated by an author to suit the needs of a narrative. Time within fiction is a malleable thing. I might speed my characters’ clocks along, spinning the hands into a blur, or I might stop them entirely to dwell on a suspended moment. This is the power of a god, and, as far as my characters are concerned, I am a god, the only god.

To me, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a masterpiece if there ever was one, is defined and spectacularly elevated by its middle, those 20 pages of expansive vision and extreme beauty called “Time Passes.” The novel’s other two sections, the much longer “The Window” and “The Lighthouse,” each take place over one day at the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye. Their pace is measured; in them, Woolf’s attention stays trained on the psychology of her characters and the complex emotional resonances set off by offhand remarks and minute gestures. “Time Passes,” in contrast, makes a majestic, impersonal swoop through 10 years, a period when the Ramsays don’t come to Skye, three of them die (their deaths noted briefly and parenthetically), and nature—fertile and insensible, as Woolf puts it—creeps in among the family’s abandoned possessions, inhabiting and reclaiming the house. Only the last-minute intervention of the caretakers, Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, save the house from total disintegration.

In a purely structural sense, the section is unnecessary. It’s awful to imagine such a loss, but Woolf could have transitioned from “The Window” to “The Lighthouse” with a few sentences explaining that a decade has passed, that Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew are dead and the house fallen into disrepair. If plot means dealings among the characters, there is no real progression of plot here, but, at the same time, what plot is grander or more essential than time passing? In and around the Ramsays’ vacant house, the seasons pass and pass again; the sea advances and retreats; new life and decay cycle endlessly into each other. The confrontation of life’s persistence with death’s inevitability is thrilling.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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